Making good decisions and participating in academic and extracurricular opportunities in high school helps prepare students for college. College degrees, in turn, help improve employment prospects and increase earnings.

Besides working toward college admissions, choosing a college major early on can help the student graduate from college within four years. According to 2008 National Center for Education Statistics data, about 38 percent of students graduated in four years, while about 58 percent graduated within six years.

To be safe, consider two to three majors and ensure that the schools on your college list offer each. Students should understand not all majors are created equal and can vary greatly when it comes to employment options and starting salaries.

For example, based on 2010 census data, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that none of the graduates with a bachelor’s degree in actuarial science were unemployed, while 19.5 percent of those with undergraduate degrees in clinical psychology were unemployed. Similar disparities existed in starting median salaries with school counselors at $20,000 and the $127,000 commanded by petroleum engineers.

Salary and employment rates are only two of many important criteria. Aptitude, values, passion, fun and personal goals all should play role in selecting a possible major.

Here’s a suggested timeline for high school students choosing a major:

• Freshmen: Start thinking about your favorite subjects and natural abilities to help determine your learning style and personality type. Explore electives.

• Sophomores: Take advantage of self-assessment tools, create goals and explore career clusters. Talk with people who work in areas that interest you.

• Juniors: Learn more about job descriptions, required education, trends and the employment outlook. Consider job shadowing someone or conducting an informational interview. Make a list of your potential major and careers.

• Seniors: Create your college lists and explore respective programs for majors leading to the careers you’re interested in. Examine course requirements and descriptions and the reputation of the programs. Determine the prospective schools’ internship opportunities and post-graduation placement rates.

While it’s advantageous to start college with a declared major, starting with an undeclared major is perfectly acceptable. But the sooner you can narrow your choices and choose a major, the more likely you are to save time, money and stick to your graduation plan.